What Is STEM? A Guide To Subjects, Education Theory & Benefits

What Is STEM? A Guide To Subjects, Education Theory & Benefits
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

STEM is a term heavily used in educational circles and papers but surprisingly not everyone understands how the disciplines it pertains to integrate into the classroom setting. In fact, educators don’t always give the same answers to the question, “What is STEM?” Some believe that it is a continuum from separate disciplines to a fully integrated one (Nadelson & Seifert, 2017). On the other hand, there are those who classify STEM into hierarchical levels of disciplinary separation/integration (Wang & Knobloch, 2018). While others, still, categorize it based on approaches, with each approach having its own merit and design and is not any more or less than the other (Rennie et al., 2012).

It is easier to imagine STEM coming into life in the real world than it is to imagine it being taught or studied. This is because, for so long, educational frameworks have treated Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics as separate disciplines. Careers normally pursued after completing a program in one of these disciplines usually require a working knowledge of the remaining three.

This article gives you an overview of the concepts in the theory and practice of STEM education. It also discusses the learning and professional opportunities that you may be able to acquire if you choose to pursue this education path. Lastly, it enumerates strategies that will help you succeed in the field of STEM.

A Guide to STEM Education Table of Contents

  1. The Theory and Practice of STEM
  2. Career Prospects for STEM students
  3. Benefits of Having a STEM Education
  4. Tips on Succeeding in STEM

The Theory and Practice of STEM

Moore and colleagues synthesized data from 109 articles and concluded that “a single, consensus definition of STEM integration does not yet exist.” Nevertheless, their study revealed two overarching themes among the varying definitions: (1) they are geared toward addressing ‘complex, authentic, or real-world problems,’ and (2) they emphasize the necessity of student-centered education, collaborative learning, and teamwork.

In 2020, Leung published an article in the Integrated Journal of STEM Education where he proposed a conceptual framework for STEM pedagogy. He suggests the following statement which answers the question “What is STEM?” to go with his framework: “STEM pedagogy is about situated contextual teaching and learning where participants from educational Communities of Practice (e.g. teachers, students) socially co-construct solutions and knowledge for addressing relevant real-world problems through boundary crossing dialogical and problem-solving processes that involve more than one STEM discipline.”

Leung argues that disciplinary boundaries are advantageous to learning rather than otherwise and uses the term ‘boundary crossing’ to mean “(bridging) the disciplines’ pedagogical content knowledge gaps” (2020, 3). He articulated the need to define ‘boundary objects’ or ‘mediating artifacts’ for successful boundary crossing.

The overarching themes revealed in the study of Moore and colleagues also manifest themselves in Leung’s ‘interactive figure.’ Leung intentionally used the word ‘interactive’ to emphasize that the figure may be adapted or modified as educators deem fit to match the necessities of various educational contexts. He added that even more disciplines may be added to his proposed framework.

Indeed, there are trends toward including Arts (STEAM) and Reading (STREAM) into the equation. At present, however, STEM remains as the dominant framework implemented by most educational institutions.

no. of stem degrees awarded in 2019

Career Prospects for STEM students

What is STEM education? STEM education is aimed at developing among students the following core competencies, as determined by the Global STEM Alliance in 2016: (1) Critical Thinking, (2) Problem Solving, (3) Creativity, (4) Communication, (5) Collaboration, (6) Data Literacy, and (7) Digital Literacy and Computer Science. Given the breadth of STEM curriculums, many job opportunities await those who complete the program. Most curriculums include the following interesting STEM subjects from which students may choose to specialize:

  • Geology and Earth Science
  • Biochemical Engineering
  • Animal Physiology
  • Evolutionary Biology
  • Forensic Chemistry
  • Mechatronics, Robotics, and Automation Engineering
  • Biostatistics
  • Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering
  • Systems Science and Theory

The list above is of course not exhaustive of the career opportunities that STEM graduates have the option and capacity to pursue. Other disciplines that heavily incorporate STEM subjects bring in more opportunities like careers in industrial engineering, kinesiology, and healthcare. One can only begin to imagine the possibilities with the coming of four arguably most in-demand and valued discipline expertise. It is also noteworthy how the enumerated subjects above are very much aligned with and explicitly related to real-life occupations that we need not come up with a separate list.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Benefits of Having a STEM Education

There is STEM integration, and then there are other systems, also known as non-STEM. It is unclear where the others stemmed from, but it is there. It is rooted, undeniable, and like all known cases of othering, derogatory. It is a way of thinking that we as a people need to outgrow somehow.

Having a STEM education does not necessarily make you any more intelligent than people pursuing other fields. It does, however, put you in an advantageous position to become a leader, an innovator, and a catalyst for change. Here is why:

STEM education is holistic. It allows students to understand the world differently, in a way that is freed from the socially constructed delineation of disciplines. Think of yourself as the Avatar, mastering all four elements.

With STEM, your career will be future-proof. The twenty-first century requires a set of competencies that are targeted for development under STEM education. As curriculums are designed to match and further technological advancements, the skills you will develop during your undergraduate years will continue to stay relevant in this ever-changing world after you finish your studies. You will never have to fear missing out; you will become one of the trendsetters.

You will be more grounded. One of the best features of STEM education is that it encourages you to be rooted in and aware of your local environment. You can find existing issues or problems in your community as you gather varying levels of evidence in your research, try to propose research-based solutions, and improve the lives of your neighbors. You may find STEM education and practice to be very fulfilling in this way.

STEM hones you to become flexible and capacitated to perform various functions. Most skills that you will develop during your course of studies, like communication and critical thinking, are transferrable and are needed in almost all jobs. This means that you will have a large space for career exploration.

median annual wage for STEM jobs 2020

Tips for Succeeding in STEM

STEM is a competitive field and surely being successful in it will not be easy. Below are some strategies for navigating it that you may find useful.

  1. Commit to developing your STEM skills. Based on a 25-year longitudinal study, several factors differentiate STEM leaders from non-leaders. Compared to the latter, leaders projected more confidence, dedicated more time to work, and prioritized career over anything else (McCabe, 2020). While your priorities may differ from the participants of the study, you will do you well to understand what sets them apart.
  2. Be inquisitive. Learn to ask intelligent questions. This will become handy when once are tasked to come up with your own inquiry in one of your STEM subjects.
  3. Engage in research. As you are expected to deliver research of your own in the future, expose yourself and get every research assistantship you can take.
  4. Find a mentor. Socrates mentored Plato who mentored Aristotle who mentored Alexander the Great. The genius of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael can be traced back to one mentor: Andrea del Verrocchio. Carl Jung is a student of Sigmund Freud. History demonstrates the value of mentorship. You must recognize its relevance to your own professional development and actively seek it.
  5. Improve your social competence. Join a book club or participate in group study. Maximize your opportunity to learn from other people who, just like you, are competent enough and deserve to be in this position. Surely, you will learn a thing or two from them, just as they will from you. If your groupmates are not in your vicinity, you can conduct Zoom games and other remote learning activities.
  6. Seek institutional support. If you are struggling with your studies, there are institutions in place to help you. Some of your options may include hiring a tutor, going to your school’s career counselor for advice, and finding a non-profit organization that provides educational support to students.

Source: Metcalf, et al. (2019)

The Future of STEM

It is undeniable how people in STEM can contribute to humanity’s technological advancements. In a bright future where no one is left behind, we must mind the representation and diversification of the people in this field. Other than “What is STEM?” we should be asking “Who are in the field of STEM?”

The National Science Foundation (2020) cites inclusion and diversity as one of the three most important principles in facing the challenges in the field of STEM. If we want a more diverse workforce, we need to push for the inclusion of more women, more people of color, more people with disabilities, more indigenous people, and more people from the lower or working class. We need more minorities to join the STEM team.

We are facing rising inequalities, climate change, and incompetent leadership around the world, among other threats to our survival as a species. And we need more brilliant minds to set things right. The more people with access to STEM education, the more hopeful we can be.



  1. Employment in STEM occupations: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021, April 9). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/stem-employment.htm
  2. Global Stem Alliance (2016). STEM Education Framework. The New York Academy of Sciences. https://www.nyas.org/media/13051/gsa_stem_education_framework_dec2016.pdf
  3. Leung, A. Boundary crossing pedagogy in STEM education. IJ STEM Ed 7, 15 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-020-00212-9
  4. McCabe, K. O., Lubinski, D., & Benbow, C. P. (2020). Who shines most among the brightest?: A 25-year longitudinal study of elite STEM graduate students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(2), 390–416. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000239
  5. Metcalf, H., Kelley, E., Clark, J., Russell, A. & Koster, J. (2018). Revolutionizing the STEM entrepreneurship ecosystem. https://www.awis.org/revolutionizing-the-stem-entrepreneurship-ecosystem-report
  6. Moore, T. J., Johnston, A. C., & Glancy, A. W. (2020). A Synthesis of Conceptual Frameworks and Definitions. In C. Johnson, M. Mohr-Schroeder, T. Moore, & L. English (Eds.), Handbook of Research on STEM Education (pp. 3-16). New York, NY: Routledge. https://www.routledge.com/Handbook-of-Research-on-STEM-Education/Johnson-Mohr-Schroeder-Moore-English/p/book/9780367075620
  7. Nadelson, L. S., & Seifert, A. L. (2017). Integrated STEM defined: Contexts, challenges, and the future. The Journal of Educational Research, 110(3), 221–223. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220671.2017.1289775
  8. Rennie, L., Wallace, J., & Venville, G. (2012). Exploring curriculum integration: Why integrate? In L. Rennie, G. Venville, & J. Wallace (Eds.), Integrating science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (pp. 1–11). New York, NY: Routledge. https://www.routledge.com/Integrating-Science-Technology-Engineering-and-Mathematics-Issues-Reflections/Rennie-Venville-Wallace/p/book/9780415897570
  9. STEM Jobs See Uneven Progress in Increasing Gender, Racial and Ethnic Diversity (2021, April 4). Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2021/04/01/stem-jobs-see-uneven-progress-in-increasing-gender-racial-and-ethnic-diversity/
  10. Wang, H.-H., & Knobloch, N. A. (2018). Levels of STEM integration through agriculture, food, and natural resources. Journal of Agricultural Education, 59(3), 258–277. https://doi.org/10.5032/jae.2018.03258
  11. Zilberman, A., & Ice, L. (2021, January 19). Why computer occupations are behind strong STEM employment growth in the 2019-2029 decade. Beyond the Numbers. U.S. Bureau of Labor of Statistics. https://www.bls.gov/opub/btn/volume-10/why-computer-occupations-are-behind-strong-stem-employment-growth.htm

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